This fall semester, in commemoration of the ten year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, St. Lawrence has played host to several 9/11 themed artistic exhibitions. I found the smallest of these collections on the lower level of the O.D.Y. Library: The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11. There in glass cases, were seven works of art created by children ages 8-12 during 2001. They were made with the mediums of childhood art— colored pencil, construction paper, crayon—but the result was anything but innocent. Several pieces displayed the destruction, sadness, and confusion that gripped the city in the aftermath.There was even a 9 year old boy’s interpretation, titled “Guernica.”, made in the style of Picasso’s painting of the same name. But even with these dark and visceral pieces, there were a few that offered the hope and optimism characteristic of children. Matthew Sussman’s “Coming Together” stood out for such positivity as he depicted the FDNY and NYPD forces working together, smiling as they offer each other helping hands amidst the chaotic background.
I decided to seek out the curator of this exhibit for some more information, or perhaps, just conversation. Jane Becker Nelson kindly took time out of her busy schedule to converse over email with me at The Laurentian Magazine about the importance of recovering, remembering—and ultimately revitalizing from what has been left behind.
LM: What made you decide to look to children’s representations of 9/11?
JBN: Honestly, it was chance that led me to this body of work. As I was doing research for Re-framing Terrorism, one of the exhibitions currently on display at the Brush Gallery, I stumbled across the book “The Day our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11.” As I read the introductory remarks, I was struck by the compelling scope of the project. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, NYU’s Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York collaborated to collect over 800 works of art about 9/11, made by kids in the New York metro area. This ambitious collection was then reviewed by a panel of artists, curators, child psychologists, and art therapists who selected about 70 pieces for a public exhibition in 2002. A book with the selected works was published and that’s how I learned of the collection almost ten years after it was created and exhibited. (In fact, ODY has a copy of the book in the stacks!)
The works I chose for this exhibition come from fourteen artists who were between the ages of eight and thirteen years old when the attacks occurred, the same age that today’s St. Lawrence students were on 9/11. I’ve heard from many people who have seen the show – parents, community members, faculty and staff – that this is an interesting glimpse into St. Lawrence student’s childhoods, and the era in which the students have come of age. Though they’re young, the artists capture emotions that were shared in the wake of 9/11 – anger and confusion, grief and mourning, healing and hope.
LM: How do you think art plays a role in documenting (and coping with) major events like 9/11?
JBN: In the introduction to ”The Day our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11,” Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., director and founder of the NYU Child Study Center states that “the idea for this project evolved from seeing the immediate outpouring of art created by children affected by the tragedy. The work sprung up spontaneously, adorning building facades, storefronts, fire and police stations, and the walls of emergency assistance facilities throughout the city.” To me, this sudden influx of artwork on the streets of New York after 9/11 is a testament to the power of images. Both as an outlet for expression and a source of reflection… artwork has a unique role in marking a moment in time, and helping people cope with events like 9/11.
Part of what makes this work so interesting is that it is incredibly honest and direct. Time and distance from any extreme event – whether tragic or joyful – turns down the volume of our emotional response. This artwork was captured when the event was still very close at hand. Some of the reactions have that raw, unfiltered energy.
LM: “Memorial” is a piece that really drew my attention. Is there any more you can tell me about it? The inclusion of the text explaining that his father—who worked in one of the towers—was not in the building that day makes the absent space design that much more haunting.
JBN: Unfortunately, I don’t know any more about “Memorial.” But Courtney, I would ask you, what is it that draws your attention? How does the image reinforce the text, and how does the text inform the image? You’re already reading the composition in a really interesting way (interesting that you noted the text “makes the absent space design that much more haunting”)… go with it! For your research, you might be interested to read part of the book. In addition to the copy in ODY in the stacks; there’s also one with the exhibition, and another in the Brush Art Gallery.
Jane was right in highlighting the combination of text and picture; with the pictures providing a voice for the children and the accompanying text conveying the observations of adults, this exhibit came together powerfully to illustrate the reality of the resounding effects 9/11 has on the people of the United States, no matter their age.
This exhibit ended October 22nd, but the book The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 is located on the shelves in the O.D.Y. Library.
Memorial. Andrew Emil, age 11